AT Walvis Bay and down at Combined Headquarters at Cape
Town the position of the castaways was causing grave concern. The
news of the wreck of the tug and the perilous situation of its crew,
followed by the announcement that the bomber was bogged and
that her crew, too, would now have to be rescued, presented the
authorities with new problems.
Walvis Bay was still without a suitable aircraft which could
take the place of the bogged Ventura and take supplies to the two
shipwrecked parties. It so happened, however, that on the afternoon
following the bogging of the Ventura, Captain J. S. Dalgleish, the
Director of the South African Naval Forces, and Major A. J. Smit,
the General Staff Officer (II) at Combined Headquarters, arrived at
Walvis Bay from Cape Town in an Anson ferry plane. Orders
were at once given to prepare the Anson for a mercy flight next day
with supplies for the stranded people.
The first difficulty to overcome was the fact that the Anson's
range was insufficient to allow her to make the round trip to the
liner and back to Walvis Bay without refuelling. An alternative
route was worked out, however. By flying east for 180 miles she
could make Windhoek and refuel there. A similar hop almost due
north would bring her to Outjo, the railhead. There was an
emergency landing ground at a place in the desert called Ohopoho,
roughly another 200 miles north-west, on the fringe of the Kaokoveld.
This had been prepared for the use, if necessary, of the
planes flying between Windhoek and Angola. There was a petrol
dump there from which the Anson would be able to refuel. It
was only another 130 miles to the wreck of the liner and the plane
should have enough fuel to visit both wrecks and get safely back to
Ohopoho. Then she could follow the same route home or make
direct for Walvis Bay. The course was a round-about one of some
700 miles from Walvis Bay to the liner, against only 370 miles if
the plane could have flown direct.
Major Smit and the Anson's crew worked until far into the
night, laying down the course the plane should follow. They
were handicapped by the usual thing-lack of proper maps. Such
maps as were available lacked detail or were unreliable. The
position of Ohopoho was the principal cause of worry. If they
could be certain that the plane would find Ohopoho she could fly
direct from Walvis Bay to the wrecks, drop her supplies, and go on
to Ohopoho and from there in one hop back to Walvis Bay.
But Ohopoho was not marked on the majority of maps, and the
terrain presented no distinguishing features-just sand and more
sand-so that correct navigation would be very difficult. There
was every chance that she would fail to find the stretch of level
sand that was Ohopoho, and then she would have insufficient petrol
to reach the next airfield. The last thing anyone wanted to risk
at the moment was having another marooned crew to rescue from
The route that was finally chosen would allow the Anson to
turn back and reach Outjo safely if she failed to find Ohopoho.
While the pilot and his crew were memorising as well as they could
the features of the country they were to fly over on the morrow,
mechanics were stripping the plane of all non-essential equipment
and loading her with the- maximum amount of fuel, water, and
supplies. The latter were wrapped in large quantities of blankets.
For two days now, smce the bogged Ventura's radio had failed,
no news had reached the outside world of what was happening at
either of the wrecks. It was known, however, that the Nerine
must be nearing the end of her endurance, and another S.A.N.F.
minesweeper, H.M.S.A.S. Natalia (Sub-Lieutenant J. C. Walters),
which was lying in Walvis Bay, was prepared to relieve her. She
took aboard all the fuel and water she could carry, in addition to extra
provisions, blankets and rafts. Lieutenant-Commander Finlayson,
the South African naval officer in charge at Walvis Bay, decided to go
in the Natalia to make a personal survey of the position. He brought
aboard with him two dozen carrier pigeons. He knew that the
Natalia's radio equipment had no greater range than that of the
sweeper she was to relieve. Experience in the Great War in command
of drifters in the North Sea had taught him the value of
carrier pigeons when other means of communication were unreliable
or non-existent. He decided therefore to try and bridge the
gap in communications that the ship's radio could not, by this means.
It was to be the first time pigeons were to help in rescue operations
on the South African coast.
The Natalia put to sea late in the afternoon of December 4.
She was scheduled to reach the wrecked liner on the morning of
Early on December 5, as soon as it was light, the Anson
took off on her hazardous flight. She was so heavily loaded that
it was only with difficulty that she got into the air. Her pilot had
instructions, after completing his mission at the wrecks, to search for
the motor convoy that had set off from Windhoek three days earlier,
and, if he found it, to drop a message giving the convoy directions
on how to reach the wrecks.
The Anson was already near Outjo when news reached Walvis
Bay that a second Ventura bomber had left Darling, near Cape Town,
at daylight, and would reach Walvis Bay at lunch time to pick up
supplies for the shipwrecked parties. In view of this information
a message was radioed to the Anson recalling her. She landed at
Walvis Bay during the afternoon.
While the authorities at Walvis Bay were awaiting the arrival
of the Ventura, a wireless message was received from the liner's
captain on board the Nerine, which was now within radio range. He
asked that apart from food and water, tents and blankets should be
dropped to the survivors. He reported that they were now suffering
from exposure and asked whether there was not some possibility of
sending an overland expedition by motor lorry from the settlement
at Cape Cross, to rescue them.
Cape Cross is about 350 miles south of where the wrecked liner
was lying. The journey along the beach and sand dunes by motor
vehides, even had they been available, was an impossibility. There
were no roads or even tracks leading northward. The suggestion,
therefore, could not be considered.
But attention was given to the request for blankets and tents.
These were got ready for the arrival of the Ventura. It landed at
Rooikop aerodrome on schedule, after a fast trip up the coast. It
was piloted by Major J. N. Robbs, D.F.C., with Lieutenant Arie Brink
as navigator, and Corporal Charles Russell as radio operator. Like
Naude's aircraft, it was a unit of No.23 Bomber Squadron.
Only one parachute water container, holding 20 gallons, was
available for the plane. A number of motor car inner tubes were
obtained, and into these fresh water was pumped. The lack of
supply parachutes was a great handicap. As the next best thing the
flare chute in the bomber's floor was adapted to enable the tins of
canned fruit, condensed milk, bully beef, biscuits, and other small
packages of supplies, to be dropped through it. Large quantities
of blankets were taken aboard, and also one large bell tent with a
centre pole in sections, which was intended for the women and
children. There was no space for anything more, and when the
bomber took to the air about 2.30 in the afternoon she looked like a
flying bazaar within. Major Smit had joined her as observer.
In just under two hours the plane was over the wreck of the
tug. The position there did not seem to have changed much, except
that there were now six men on the beach, together with the lifeboat
and what looked like the broken hull of another small boat. There
were still about a dozen men on the tug's upperworks. From the
masthead two flags fluttered. They formed the international distress
There had in fact been little change since the tragedy of the
previous day. The men on the wreck had spent another sleepless
and uncomfortable night. At daybreak the weather had moderated
somewhat and the men on the beach had tried to launch the lifeboat.
It was too heavy for them to move down to the water, however, and
they had to abandon their attempts until the tide began to rise.
Meanwhile the men on the wreck had found another pistol rocket.
Waiting until the wind seemed favourable, they fired it with a line
attached, towards the beach. Like its predecessors, it fell short.
After a rest of an hour the men ashore made another effort to
launch the lifeboat. Again they were unsuccessful. As ill-luck
would have it, it was only at low tide, when other conditions were
favourable, that the surf was quiet enough to offer a possibility of
the lifeboat reaching the wreck in safety. But the boat had been
thrown so high up on the beach that without human hands to carry it,
only high tide would refloat it. The surf was then always too
heavy to risk the passage to the tug.
The men did try again just before high water, and again on
the top of the tide. They got the boat afloat but they could
not control it. Each breaker picked it up and hurled it back
on the beach. At last they had to give up, exhausted.
Most of the men on the wreck and on the beach were in despair
when the aircraft was sighted. It circled around while they waved
excitedly. Some of the men on the beach made appealing signs to
the plane to land on the sand. The airmen saw their pathetic signs
but they knew it would be foolhardy to make the attempt. Instead
they dropped some of the food to the men on the beach, and also some
of the tubes containing water. The tubes burst on impact, however,
and all the water was lost. They also dropped a message informing
the beach party that help was on the way, and adjuring them to keep
cheerful. This message was signalled from the beach to the tug and
helped to buck up the spirits of the men still marooned on her. On
sighting the plane they had prepared and hoisted another signal,
asking that a rocket apparatus might be dropped on the beach.
When the plane headed north with a farewell dip of its wings
the men on the wreck were more optimistic of eventual rescue. By
now they were suffering severe pangs of thirst, but they were cheered
by indications that the surf and swell were subsiding. A moderate
to fresh southerly wind was blowing, and seas were still breaking
over their vessel, which continued to bump and groan under their
Not long after leaving the tug the Ventura reached the wreck
of the liner. As on the previous occasion, the people below showed
great excitement when the plane flew low over their heads. She
dropped her supplies from a greater height than the first bomber
had done. The 20-gallon water container, with its parachute
attached, was the first to be released through the bomb doors. Once
again Fate stepped in. The parachute did not open, and the con-
tainer was split from end to end on the beach. The precious water
soaked into the sand.
The same thing happened to the motor tubes. Each one burst
on striking the ground, and spilled its contents into the sand. Nor
did the provisions fare much better. One after the other the tins and
packages split open as they hit the ground. A few landed intact,
and some of the contents of others were salved, but by far the
majority were a total loss.
The tent and the blankets, however, reached the ground safely.
They were to prove a boon indeed to the castaways. That evening
some of the men pitched the tent, and by nightfall all the women and
the children were safely ensconced within, with the knowledge that
the blankets dropped from the sky would ensure their spending their
first night in comparative warmth. There is no doubt that the
protection that the tent provided from the driving sand was
responsible, with the care and skill of Dr. Labib, for saving the eye-
sight of the youngest member of the party.
After dropping its supplies the plane flew over its consort so
that those on board could examine its position and report on the
possibility of its being salved. Even from the air they could see
that it was hopelessly bogged and that it would be impossible to
move it without the aid of proper equipment which would have to
be brought overland.
Naude and his crew had returned to their plane and had
checked over the messages they had written in the sand. With a
large white flag they signalled from the fuselage to attract the
attention of the circling aircraft. The latter signalled with her
Aldis lamp that she had seen the messages and would report.
After leaving the castaways Major Robbs flew inland to search
for the overland rescue expedition. Despite an exhaustive survey
he was unable to find a trace of it, and eventually he was compelled
by the approach of darkness to abandon the search and go back to
Naude and his crew, after spending one night in the survivor's
camp, had decided to return to their aircraft and make their
temporary home there. They would be able to subsist for several
days more on the emergency rations they had in the plane, and would
thus avoid draining the supplies of the shipwrecked party. They
also still clung to the hope that they would be able to dig their plane
out of the sand again.
They divided up their rations as follows : -
Breakfast: One cup of water, three biscuits, and a small piece
of Nestles cheese each;
Lunch: A cup of water, half a tin of bully beef, and three
Supper: A cup of water, three biscuits, and a piece of chocolate
During the day they sucked glucose sweets. They would have
preferred to draw less upon their water supply, but the bully beef,
biscsuts and chocolate made them so thirsty that even with three cups
of water a day their throats seemed always to be parched.
The wind had moderated somewhat but was still blowing too
strongly for the airmen to do anything towards digging their plane
out. They made themselves as comfortable as they could in the
aircraft and slept more soundly that night.
The people on the beach awoke next morning to see a ship
approaching. It was the Natalia. She signalled that she was going
to drop rafts and that they should look out for them. Then she
steamed some distance down the coast and released a raft on which
were lashed cases of food, drums of water, and a large tarpaulin.
Drums of fresh water with enough buoyancy to float were also
dropped overboard. The current was kinder to these than it had
been to those of the Nerine, and although they came ashore well
beyond the camp, they were not too far for some of the castaways
who were still fairly fit, to reach them. The arrival of the food
supplies relieved anxiety for the present on that score. Water, how-
ever, still had to be rationed to about half a cup at a time. To get
a five-gallon tin of water entailed a walk of six miles or more along
the beach, and the men who made the journey to the heavy drums
on the rafts always returned pretty well exhausted. And five gallons
of water did not go far among more than 60 people. There was, of
course, no question of anyone washing or shaving with fresh water.
Even to wash in salt water entailed a walk of more than a quarter-
of-a-mile over the sand. The heat, lack of protection from the sun,
and the unpleasant wind, combined with the listlessness resulting
from an inadequate and unwholesome diet, effectively dissuaded most
of the castaways from making that journey more often than could
be avoided. In consequence some of them went for days without a
wash, and the men did not attempt to shave. They now looked
unkempt, with a week's growth of beard.
Immediately he reached the wreck Finlayson had released two
pigeons with messages for Walvis Bay announcing the Natalia's
arrival. During the ship's subsequent operations he released several
more pairs. They were always released in pairs, and the messages
were duplicated, in the hope that if one failed to get home, the other
might. The flight was a test for any bird. As the bird flies, the
distance from the wreck to Walvis Bay was 370 miles, and it was
over virtual desert with only one or two waterholes in the beds of
dried-up rivers. The terrain was unfamiliar to the pigeons. To add
to the difficulties of their flight, they had to contend with an almost
perpetual south-westerly wind, which was practkally a head wind.
Yet, of the dozen or so birds that were released, half got through
with their messages. They averaged about ten hours each, or 40
miles an hour, for their flights.
The inforrnation they brought to the authorities at Walvis Bay
of the conditions at the wreck, proved invaluable to the latter in
making their plans for further rescue attempts.
After dropping her supplies, the Natalia steamed further south
to seek a sheltered spot where a landing party might get ashore.
Finlayson decided to investigate Fria Cove for himself. Like Van
Rensburg before him, he came to the conclusion that there was
insufficient shelter there to risk the passage to the beach. While he
was still looking for a suitable place trouble developed in the Natalia's
stokehold. The chief engineer reported that a serious leak had
started in the boiler tubing and that the ship could not carry on
without immediate repairs. Anchor was therefore dropped in Fria Cove
and the engineers set to work. Meanwhile from the deck a careful
watch was kept upon the beach to see whether any change in the
tide or the wind might make a landing possible. During the six
hours that the minesweeper remained at anchor, however, the wind
continued to blow fairly strongly from the south-west and to bring
with it a moderate swell, which caused the surf to break heavily
all along the coast.
While the minesweeper lay at anchor, about the middle of the
afternoon, Major Robbs flew over on his second trip from Walvis
Bay in the Ventura. The Natalia tried to attract the plane's attention
- by flash signals and by radio, in order to report on the situation, but
she failed. The plane flew on and dropped more supplies to the beach
party. She came lower this time to drop her water in motor tubes,
but as on the previous day they all burst open on striking the ground.
Robbs then flew off to continue his search for the missing overland
convoy. Once more he was unsuccessful. He returned to Walvis
Bay late in the evening.
After several hours' work the chief engineer of the Natalia
announced that it was impossible to effect the necessary repairs at
sea, and that there were also only four tons of fresh water left in
the tanks, which were insufficient for the boiler's requirements for
the voyage back to Walvis Bay. Walters, the commanding officer,
in consultation with Finlayson, decided that there was no alternative
but to return at once to Walvis Bay. The engineers said they would
improvise down below and run on two fires only, using salt water
in the boiler.
Shortly after six o'clock the engineers reported that they were
ready to get the engines going again, and the minesweeper hoisted
her anchor. She steamed back towards the camp, dropping another
drum with 30 gallons of fresh water on the way. She anchored off
the wreck and signalled to the beach party informing them that
owing to engine trouble she was unfortunately forced to return to
port, but that another vessel would be sent to stand by. She asked
if there was anything they would like sent to them by air.
The shipwrecked party signalled back that their chief wants were
water and more shelter. They added a postscript that Annabel and
her mother no doubt had inspired: "Send face creams."
The Natalia's last view of the castaways before she steamed
away was of three young men in naval uniform signalling from the
beach; about 15 men dragging the tarpaulin that she had floated
ashore on the raft earlier in the day, down the coast; and a small
crowd at the water's edge around what appeared to be an aircraft
The dinghy belonged to the bogged Ventura. Earlier in the
day a few of the shipwrecked crew had arrived at the plane and asked
the airmen for the loan of their dinghy. Their idea was to try and
reach the wreck with its aid, and bring back supplies. The airmen
willingly lent it, and helped them carry it the two miles to the
beach. It weighed 160 lbs. and it was no easy job to get it to the
water. When it was finally set down the airmen inflated it from the
compressed air bottle. Before it could be launched, however, the
chief officer sent orders that no attempt was to-be made to reach the
wreck through that surf. The dinghy was therefore deflated and
left on the beach to await a more favourable opportunity.